Find Your Own Funny Bone


The life you save may be your own. Each of us has a unique sense of humor, although it overlaps with others’ on a Venn diagram of “What’s so funny?” My Occam’s Razor of jokes (biggest laugh for the fewest words) seems to depend on a love of horses and of watering-hole (as opposed to lavatorial) humor: “Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?'” No? Quod erat demonstrandum.

But you do have a favorite joke; and if you don’t, you are advised to get one–in fact, to lay in a large supply of them (along with the water, canned goods and flashlights that FEMA wants you to cache). Finding the funny in a rotten situation is the most universal form of sublimation (which is the highest order of ego defense, don’t you know). My Dad’s tiny G.I. edition of Max Shulman’s comic novel Barefoot Boy With Cheek was credited with saving lives in the Pacific Fleet during WW II, since it was memorized and recited verbatim among the watchstanders, keeping them awake and relieving both boredom & fear, through laughter.

An inside joke is a powerful defense against an adversary’s attempt to make a person feel like a victim. Remember the tune the PoWs whistled all through The Bridge on the River Kwai? It’s called “The Colonel Bogey March,” dating from WW I, to which Britons during the Blitz had made up rude lyrics concerning the genitalia of Hitler and his henchmen. Not even everyone in the movie audience was in on the joke, as the men whistled their defiance to their Axis captors. It makes the film much funnier, if you know the “secret code,” which, of course, all the actors did, sometimes making it hard for them to “put their lips together and blow.”

When the code is so secret that only one person knows it, that speaker (or whistler) is often dismissed as “just crazy”; but my psycholinguistic studies of the speech of schizophrenics and those with dementia, suggest that the person may be “crazy like a fox“–a New York figure of speech, meaning that there is method in his/her madness. Roman Jakobsen (there will be a quiz later, so take notes) divides all human utterances into six speech functions. You can give (or request) factual information [Referential speech]. You can clarify what you meant to say [Metalingual]. You can express strong emotion [Emotive]! You can give orders (even to yourself) [Conative]. So far, so boring, yeah? Here comes the good stuff. In order to make sure that the other party is listening to you, you must engage in a certain amount of Phatic speech, “You know? Well, let’s see. No kiddin’? Uh…” Wanna know which diagnostic category of people use the Phatic speech function least? Paranoid schizophrenics. Never underestimate the value of “Uh…”

The final speech function is the basis of all humor: Poetic speech. We use it when we believe that to give “just the facts” will get us killed (or at least, in alot of trouble). So we put it in code. We sing it, or say it in a put-on voice or accent, or exaggerate, or say the exact opposite of what we mean, or (if we are really dorky) use “air quotes.” If our intended audience doesn’t “lol,” we say, “No, but seriously…” and develop flop sweat. Often, but not always, the hidden message inside the bottle of Poetic speech is “I am so f&#king ANGRY!” When our audience gets the message and laughs with us, we all neutralize some of our rage: release endorphins, fight the build-up of cortisol, and avoid turning into werewolves.

So, how does Lili the dog come into this treatise on humor as an antidote to anger? Dogs are court jesters, for whom human laughter is a powerful reinforcement of whatever behavior they just did. Our dog trainer was constantly rebuking dog owners in our class, who giggled nervously when their dog committed a transgression, “Don’t laugh! You’ll only reinforce the behavior you’re trying to curb!” When the dog does something permissible but funny, we can laugh to our heart’s content. (We can also watch dogs on YouTube, where they can’t hear us laughing at them.)

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Filed under comic relief, phatic communication, pragmatics, secret code

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